Dreaming of More Creative, Productive Employees? Let Them Sleep In
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Dreaming of More Creative, Productive Employees? Let Them Sleep In

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“How did you sleep last night?”

We often ask our family members and house guests this question over breakfast. But should business leaders be just as concerned about how well—and how much—their employees are sleeping?

Research into the science of sleep has proven what most people figure out through life experience: When we don’t get enough shuteye, we’re not our best selves. We aren’t as alert, focused, or creative as we are after a restful night. Instead, we’re crankier, more impatient, and less enthusiastic—about both life and work.

Sleep deprivation comes with a hefty price tag, both for companies and individuals. It costs employers nearly $2,000 per worker each year due to productivity losses, lackluster performance, and safety snafus. Economists from the University of California–San Diego also found that people who don’t sleep well or enough make less money than their peers. In fact, just an extra hour of sleep at night can increase a person’s wages by 16 percent.

The business case for sleep is loud and clear. So if you’re a marketing leader who wants passionate, imaginative, and collaborative team members, understanding the science of sleep could go a long way toward helping them step up their game.

working in bedTo Sleep, Perchance to Dream

What’s the last dream you remember having? I bet it was seemingly random and maybe a little weird. It might have been scary, nonsensical, or even entertaining. But more than likely, it was creative.

In On Writing, Stephen King’s memoir/writing manual, he suggests the creative process and sleeping have much in common. As he puts it:

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night—six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight—so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

In the 15 years since King published this book, scientists have proven he might have been on to something. In a 2007 study on how sleep affects the brain’s ability to make creative or unusual connections, people who got a good night’s sleep outperformed less well-rested subjects by 23 percent.

In a separate study, researchers administered a test with creativity-oriented word problems, gave participants the opportunity to nap, and then tested them again. Those who entered REM sleep—the stage at which dreams are most vivid—improved their scores by 40 percent, while those who remained awake or did not enter REM sleep showed no improvement.

Clearing Out the Cobwebs

So why does sleep improve concentration and creativity? New research suggests that our brains aren’t resting while our bodies slumber; instead, they’re taking a bath.

U.S. News & World Report sums up what scientists call the “glymphatic system:”

“This system sort of flushes the brain of all metabolic waste, and it does this every night, getting in between the cells and neurons, purging the brain of the metabolic byproducts of the day,” says A. Thomas Perkins, a sleep expert and director of the Sleep Medicine Program at Raleigh Neurology in North Carolina.

Additionally, in 2013, researchers at the University of Rochester’s Center for Translational Neuromedicine found the brain actually makes room for this nightly flushing of cerebrospinal fluid. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Space between brain cells increases during sleep, letting it essentially wash the brain of ‘toxic molecules.'”

Perkins explains that the brain’s ability to perform this nightly clearing out can be hindered by not getting enough sleep or not sleeping deeply enough. “You essentially have a brain trying to function the next day with junk laying around—metabolic byproduct and wastes that interfere with its functioning,” he says.

In other words, if your team isn’t getting enough shuteye, then they’re coming to work with dirty minds—and not the entertaining kind.

Night Owl or Sleeping Disorder?

Girl gaining clarityNot everyone’s internal clock runs on the same schedule. While nine-to-five shifts might work fine for early risers, others think best in the evenings or even in the middle of the night.

Circadian rhythms, our natural sleeping patterns, can vary dramatically from person to person, and the often change throughout the course of our lives. That’s why parents with toddlers never get to sleep in late on Saturday mornings, and why teenagers keep such odd hours.

For some adults, being a night owl is a choice—or at least a preference. But the 400,000 Americans who suffer from delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) can’t reset their sleep schedules just by going to bed earlier. Their internal clocks run at least two hours slower than the average person, causing them to be sluggish and tired during the day because their bodies often confuse day with night. If DSPS sufferers can’t find jobs that accommodate their nocturnal schedules, they may either be unemployed or sleep deprived, which can lead to mental health issues, heart disease, and even brain damage.

Even people with “normal” sleep schedules are more productive or creative at certain times of the day. For some people, it’s early in the morning, while others feel more energetic in the evenings. So before you start handing out pink slips to talented employees who can’t keep their eyes open during morning meetings, or who frequently seem tired and sluggish, consider whether they’re really lazy, or if they simply don’t function well during normal office hours.

Help Them Sleep to Succeed

So how can marketing leaders ensure their teams are getting enough sleep to be focused and creative at work?

  1. Let them nap. Many companies now allow—and even encourage—employees to sleep on the job. Procter & Gamble, Google, and the Huffington Post all have designated areas where employees can take power naps. Whether you fill a room with comfy recliners or purchase “EnergyPods” to give individuals a little privacy, letting sleepy employees close their eyes for half an hour might be just the energy boost they need.

  2. Allow flexible hours. For creative teams, there’s nothing like the combined energy and brilliant ideas that come from a great brainstorming session or even a chance meeting in the hallway. But does the entire team have to be in the office at all times? Instead of making everyone work the same hours, you could let them set their own schedules (within reason). Those who come in early get to leave early, while those who opt for a later start time stay longer or make up the extra time from home.

  3. Expand your wellness program. If your company or health insurer offers a wellness plan, consider including options that promote healthy living and improve sleep quality. For example, you could offer a smoking cessation program, discounted gym members, or classes for stress-reduction activities such as yoga.

  4. Promote healthy habits in the office. If your company doesn’t offer a wellness plan, there are plenty of ways to promote healthy living in your office without spending a dime. Start a running group for interested team members. Have walking meetings. Keep healthy snacks in the office. Turn the coffee pot off after 3 or 4 p.m. Send your team articles and other resources about how to get a good night’s sleep.

  5. Encourage unplugging. Many leaders unintentionally set expectations that work calls and emails should be answered around the clock, even late at night or early in the morning. So it’s no wonder 80 percent of 18- to 44-year-olds say the first thing they do when they wake up is check their smartphones. Encourage your team to unplug after work hours, at least one or two days a week. How? The best possible way is to set a good example and unplug yourself. After all, they might just be following their leader.

For more ways to keep your team creative and productive, read “7 Tips for Boosting Creativity on a Deadline.” Want more stories like this one? Subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.

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